A Journal Of The Dark Arts
Using: TAL Bassline, FXPansion Geist, Sugarbytes Thesys
Part of the intents and purposes of Forestpunk is as field guide and production notes, as a sort of DIY invisible academy. You see, i ran out of money ages ago and have had to learn to do everything for myself, from fixing a van or a dishwasher, to programming CSS and jungle beats. After running across the blog a New York based Musician and Visual Artist Tom Moody, i’ve been inspired to start posting some of my own productions, with notes on some of the techniques i’ve used and what i’ve learned from the experiment. It’s as much for my own benefit as yr own. It’s incredible, and satisfying, how often i use this space as a way to recall something, some record that i particularly adored or the track listing for some mix. These are just my notes and memoirs, and hopefully some of y’all might find it useful, as well.
As you may or may not know, i’ve been making electronic music under the name dessicant. It’s intended as post-techno tensile post-punk ritual, taut and jittering beat excursions mixed with retro exotica and okkvltist tendencies. I am combining my love of the ephemeral, the haunting & occult, and ferocious, pummeling beats and noise. It’s a kind of hypnosis, a virtual seance. My goal is to make the world a stranger and more hypnotic place, to rend holes and portals, to let some inspiration shine through.
I compose (when making electronic music) almost exclusively in Ableton Live, with a modest arsenal of VSTs and occasionally slaving an outside platform like Propellerhead’s Reason. I am running a MacBook from my friend’s deceased Grandmother, that is perpetually running low on space and is very loud, but gets the job done. When i’m not feeling lazy, or when i’m at a desk, i use an Akai Pro APC40 Ableton Controller, whose faders don’t get enough juice, and i have a TASCAM US-1800 16-in, 4-out USB 2.0 Audio Interface soundcard and a pair of Rokit Monitor Speakers. It’s a modest studio, but i was stuck with an acoustic guitar missing a string, a Hinckley & Schmidt water jug and a handheld tape recorder for over a decade, so i couldn’t be more thrilled.
Like nearly every producer working today, especially those just learning, i spent my first few years making tracks utterly bewildered by toys and gimmicks. I had gone to school for sound engineering for a couple of years, and had worked as a stage hand and occasional soundguy, so i was pretty familiar with routing and the concept of multi-tracking, but the sudden abyss of infinite multi-tracking and signal processing made my inner child gorge himself at this digital feast, fat and sticky with Impulse Response reverbs and modular DSPs.
On top of this, i have played music my whole life, starting with piano lessons, choir and marching band, but had never undertook the sacred act of original composition ’til my moody early adult years, after a few too many religious epiphany at Phish shows and raves. I have been listening to music obsessively and exhaustively since i was 13; i have a collector’s mind and a completist’s instinct. In short, i am well stocked on ethnomusicology and theoretical know-how, yet to this very second, the mystery of writing a song still eludes and fascinates me.
Getting into Ableton changed things for me. It was not until spending 9,000 hours, staring at magnified waveforms, washing over my irises, did the subtlety of musical arrangement make itself known to me. Finally, my rebellious Aquarian self encountered Structure, and with it, its stern twin, discipline.
To be short, i started to learn what i needed to know, in which case, i started to have an idea of how to learn it. I started to structure a learning system for myself, using all the world’s best music as a torch to guide and motivate me. My battlecry in life is, if you do something often enough, eventually you will get good at it.
Any producer working today will tell you that creativity is all about limiting possibilities. It’s about restriction; the age old quality-over-quantity. When i first got into making tracks, i was buried in a deluge of deep virtual instruments, and was lost in a maze of filters and digital delays, and forgot about the integral point: what was i trying to say? Once you figure out what yr message is, it becomes way more accessible to create it. My first point of advice, for producers of all walks of life, is pick a few tools and learn to use them to the utmost. I am still in the practice of learning this myself, and it is greatly helping my ability to concentrate and puts the emphasis on where it belongs: musicality and engineering.
TIP #1: Pick A Few Tools, and Learn ‘Em
This week, i have been focusing on step-sequencing, or figuring out how to make my machines funky. Again, like many/most/all modern electronic musicians, i started off by copping samples from other people’s works, but sampling is an art form all it’s own, and there are a number of situations where composing each part is preferable. You get way more control over each element, plus you get the benefit of learning how to write badass music yrself (that’s what you want). Plus, often when i would snip some soulful segment from a ballad that would catch my ear, there would be miner irregularities, that would cause the samples to drift. Syncing up live audio and sequenced electronics can be its own special kind of hell, and dedicated and talented crate diggers and mixologists deserve their own medal.
I’ve decided to focus on two powerful step-sequencing programs: THESYS Midi Stepsequencer and Fxpansion Geist, the former an old school analog-style melodic sequencer and the latter a deep and vast drum machine. Either of them would be capable of making a great electronic album, all on it’s own, (albeit with some work, in THESYS’ case) and both have the capacity to route MIDI to other channels and instruments, although it takes some work on the AU version of THESYS for Mac.
I’ve been enlightened, lately, by obsessively listening to Daniel Avery‘s Drone Logic inspired by his “gimmick free machine funk” as Andrew Weatherall put it, and have been investigating the possibilities of the grid. The exercise, on “i miss new orleans,” is how to get machine drums and basslines to play nice with a sliver from a soul track, some slight wordless moaning and voodoo blues guitar from New Orlean’s Papa Mali, taken from “Sugarland”, a track i recently fell in love with, thanks to American Horror Story: Coven.
Amazingly enough, i managed to find several solid clips, that clung pretty tightly to the downbeat, making it possible to sync up the funk with my regimented drum machines. I wrote a number of patters on Geist, using mostly 808 tom toms, and then re-recorded them by routing the audio to another track and recording the patterns as clips. I picked a few slow-n-steady techno riddims, and a few complex, bouncy hip-hop patterns to develop into. My goal, by splaying New Orleans funk, that most elusive spirit, on the grid was to learn some new rhythmic patterns, to develop beyond boring backbeats and house cliches. I started off just screwing around, then started to think of a rapper friend of mine, and decided to flip this into a hip-hop beat, and a structure started to emerge.
Once you are working with audio clips, arrangement becomes more like painting with sounds. I would highly advise that you get into the habit of re-naming yr channels and clips, and color-coding different samples, to make it easier to pick them out in Song Arrangement mode.
Tips #2 & 3:
I start off with just a trancey sample from the song to start, run through a resonator to give it that rainbow sheen, and automated a quick dub delay. I come in with a half-step kick drum, and a surprisingly krautrocky beat and guitar lick, to get into the meat of things. If you listen closely, you can tell that the audio is overblown, as this is a rough edit, and i have not done any panning, EQing, compression, reverb or levelling yet. There are several clips going at once, and nearly all of them have some heavy bass frequencies. I will most likely add variable EQ to each track, and scoop a little 250 Hz subbass from each track, as there are essentially 8 bass drums happening simultaneously. I like my hip-hop (and electronic music in general) quick and dirty, but digital distortion is the kiss of death to many amateur professions, and mixing yr audio will do a lot to make yr stuff sound more ‘finished’ or ‘pro’, and stand apart from the imitators.
The bass sound you are hearing is a soft-synth called Togu Audio Line Bassline 101 with some bitcrushing. I cannot help but add a touch of the wyrd and the sci-fi to all that i touch, as i am a mutant, even to this smooth and slick expedition. The bass-line, simply moving between D and A, has an 1/8th Note up-and-down arpeggiator, making it move like nearly every other element of the song. I start off writing a bass part in E and B min, to finally conclude that this song is in the key of G. Those chords don’t fall into the fundamentals of the G chord, and sounded discordant and unnatural. I decided to not get all Scriabin here, and went with a simple D power chord, instead.
Tip #4: Don’t Get Too Fancy With Yr Basslines
Last but not least, that sparkling celestial synth towards the end is Rob Papen’s Predator, trigger by Thesys. I started off in the wrong key, like with the bassline, but settled on a simple descending motif, once i figured out where i was. I’m not sure if that part will stick around, but it’s an interesting development, and i just wanted a quick rough sketch, to send to my rapper friend, to get his pen moving, to give us both something to do during this uncommonly cold early winter.
Notice also the smooth entrance, and the harsh, abrupt cutoff. I faded in the audio a little bit, at the beginning, and just stopped at the end. I highly advise you experiment with fades and cross-fades, as they will make the bazillions of little clips hang together more gracefully, sound more natural and musical to the ear, and are just classy, in my humble opinion.
Tip #5: Experiment With Fades And Crossfades
And that’s about it! Now i’ve got some rough ideas of how to structure the song, an intro, a verse, a possible chorus, maybe a breakdown. I’ve listened to the song 10 or so times, on a variety of speakers, and have some ideas of how to mix it eloquently, and am starting to think about how to carve out some space to fit an MC.
So if yr feeling bored or frustrated with songwriting or production, if yr feeling stuck or overwhelmed, i recommend pick a technique or piece of gear to focus on, to start with. Each knob, every fader, has the possibility of yielding a moment of inspiration, of unlocking the creative daemon and unleashing it on the world.
We’ll make sure to come back and share, if we end up with some finished product.
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